Theater Review: “Papermaker” — Elegy for a Maine Mill Town
Penobscot Theatre Company has taken up the challenge of staging Monica Wood’s moving and thoughtful play about a real life labor dispute in Maine.
Papermaker written by Monica Wood. Directed by Daniel Burson. Scenic design by Chez Cherry. Costume design by Kevin Koski. Lighting design by Jonathan Spencer. Sound design by Brandie Larkin. Staged by Penobscot Theatre Company at the Bangor Opera House, Main Street, Bangor, ME, through April 2.
By David Greenham
In June of 1987, 1250 union workers of the International Paper Company plant in Jay, Maine walked out on strike. The conflict between the small town papermakers and the multibillion dollar corporation dragged on for a year and a half. In some ways the standoff brought the community closer together; in other ways it ripped the town apart. The 30th anniversary of the traumatic strike is approaching, and Bangor’s Penobscot Theatre has taken up the challenge of staging Monica Wood’s Papermaker, a moving and thoughtful play about the labor dispute.
Wood, a Mainer who grew up in a paper town further down the Androscoggin River from Jay, has made good use of her knowledge of local color in the fictional hamlet of Abbott Falls, Maine. That’s where we find ourselves in the 3rd month of a strike at the paper mill. At the epicenter of the play stands union Vice President Ernie Donahue, a papermaker who has devoted 30 years to the mill. Ernie (James Herrera) is building an ark – yes, like Noah’s – in his front yard because “I’ve got to do something with my hands.” Meanwhile, his wife Marie (A.J. Mooney) is fighting an uphill battle with pancreatic cancer. They are both going to lose, and their son Jake (Daniel Kennedy) knows it. Jake’s also on strike but, because he has a wife and a new baby, he’s not in a position to pass the time with uncompensated labor. Also on the union side is Nancy Letourneau (Jennifer Shepard), whose husband is the President of the striking union. Nancy has had to return to work as a nurse to make ends meet during the crisis, and she’s none too happy about the choices that have been made.
Doug Meswarb plays Henry John McCoy, the millionaire mill owner. He and his privileged but searching daughter, Emily McCoy (Emily Shain) make up the members of the corporate team.
Henry McCoy opens the play with a monologue addressed directly to the audience. He’s stubborn, determined to win the strike. “Don’t fuck with an Irishman,” he warns us. But he admits that “the problem is that Abbott Falls is thick with Irishmen.” He’s not interested in the union, but depends on its talented members to make what he considers to be the best paper in the world. The union has taken the kind of risky gamble for survival that many New England mill towns know far too well. Henry’s view on the brotherhood of his workers is fatalistic: “solidarity is not forever; nothing is.” He makes a strong point when, responding to his daughter’s empathy for the workers, he argues that “a shit storm is coming” because of competition from China and other cheap labor markets.
Wood, an award-winnnig novelist, is not interested in delivering didactic fist-pumps. She brings depth to this conflict by looking at it from a number of angles. Her dialogue is often more poetic than it is naturalistic. And it is more prophetic than she could have known when the play received its world premiere at the Portland Stage Company in 2015. At the beginning of the second act, after the worlds of the play have collided – literally – Henry McCoy shouts at his workers, “You people keep voting against your own self-interest!” The charge has an acidic sting in the Trump era.
Skilled director Daniel Burson has focused with precision on each character’s emotional arc, and he has found plenty of humor in what is, arguably, a somewhat messily constructed drama. Also, there is a sense throughout the production that Chez Cherry’s gorgeous but overwhelming set is crowding the director and his actors off the stage. Jonathan Spencer’s lights are well placed, but come off as underwhelming. Kevin Koski’s costumes are much too heavy on the Maine plaid. There is a bit of a conflict going on with the sound design. Each act opens with a heavy-handed helping of union songs. Yet a soulful acoustic guitar comes along and tones things down between scenes.
The Penobscot Theatre Company acting company is strong, but its members miss some of the revealing subtleties in Wood’s writing, at times resorting to shouting or melodrama when a defter emotional hand would have eased out more meaning. Herrera’s Ernie sometimes paces like a caged animal, which doesn’t befit the tenacious determination of an ark builder. As his wife Marie, A.J. Mooney memorably defies her cancer as well as everyone else’s hate. The touching scenes between loving couple Herrara and Mooney sit at the eye of the hurricane. Kennedy’s Jake should be an inspiration for his father, but that doesn’t quite come through. Likewise, Shepard’s take on Letourneau is somewhat superficial. Her tragic bind (she hasn’t a good choice to make) should resonate with more authority.
As for Meswarb, McCoy presents a conundrum that the actor couldn’t quite solve. The character is a flawed leader with a sensitive passion for philosophy, poetry, and storytelling. He is the character who introduces us to the events and sums things up when the play ends. But Meswarb’s McCoy doesn’t quite add up; he’s neither a convincingly successful businessman nor a man self-conscious enough to recognize that he’s made missteps. His daughter Emily, in Shain’s capable hands, is probably the character we sympathize with the most. She tries to see both sides of the conflict, but she hasn’t forgiven her father his mistakes, regarding the death of her mother and other issues.
Still, despite these its flaws, the production is consistently involving. In these frustrating political times, when we’re obsessed with the battle between “us versus them,” Papermaker is a script that invites us to recognize that there’s actually quite a bit of “us” in “them.” As the mill towns of Maine fade into history, there is an elegiac, and bitterly ironic, power to Wood’s celebration of community.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.